The jilbab: human rights in Indonesia

Mar 31, 2021

An Indonesian woman appears before God who will pass judgement. The almighty checks the freshly-deceased’s CV, noting she prayed regularly at the mosque, recited the Koran and lived an upright life.

However, she didn’t always wear a jilbab. For the sin of letting strangers see her glossy black locks, she’ll be condemned to the everlasting furnace, though not alone. Also cooking will be her male rellies who didn’t curb her willfulness, and Mum for her inability to raise a pious daughter.

As if the journey from child to adult isn’t traumatic enough, Ifa Hanifah Misbach had to endure the beliefs above, the condemnation of her deeply religious family, the slurs of her friends and the curses of Islamic leaders for using her intellect and exercising choice.

As a late teen, she sat under a pine tree on a hill in Bandung – the capital of West Java – ‘when my tears flowed constantly’. Where she also wrote a poem, A Little Girl Is Asking God.

At the online launch of the Human Rights Watch report: I Wanted to Run Away: Abusive Dress Codes for Women and Girls in Indonesia, Misbach read from the book of verse she conceived beneath the bough:

‘God, is it true that I’ll drag my late father and all my brothers to hell because I don’t veil? If so, that means all girls will bid not to be born into an Islamic family, if they’re like me, going to ask questions. ‘In the realm of eternity before entering the womb, they’ll ask to be born as sons only, because we daughters have no power over our own bodies.’

Misbach survived her intellectual wrestle and ’more than 30 years of bullying’ to be her own woman, undefined by men claiming the ability to faultlessly interpret religious texts.

She’s now 45, a Connecticut University graduate, an academic and psychologist back in Bandung.  Her architect brother Ridwan Kamil is the provincial Governor – and a likely contender for the presidency in 2024.

Misbach said two of her patients had tried to kill themselves because of the pressure to conform, and ‘body dysmorphic disorders’ were often seen.

The Human Rights Watch report asserts that pushing the jilbab is part of a movement ‘to reshape human rights protections in Indonesia’.

“It undermines women’s right to be free from discriminatory treatment based upon any grounds whatsoever under Indonesia’s Constitution. Women are entitled to the same rights as men, including the right to wear what they choose.’

The issue of equality in Australia is secular, the debate focusing on consent.  In Indonesia it’s about coercion to the point of resisters being denied schooling, work or promotion.

Research in 2019 found about 80 million Indonesians wear jilbab, mostly in Java. ‘It is unclear how many do so voluntarily and how many do so under legal, social, or familial pressure or compulsion.’  Until this century, films of everyday events showed most women scarfless.

It’s now the topic which elbows aside other concerns. The publisher of the online women’s magazine Magdalene was quoted saying: ‘No other women’s rights stories, from rapes to #MeToo rallies, from celebrities’ profiles to our long features, can compete with jilbab stories.’

As psychologist Alissa Wahid pointed out, this seems to be a ‘small issue in a grand landscape’ of problems besetting the Republic and its 270 million citizens, but it goes to deeper issues.

The eldest daughter of the late fourth president Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid, wears the kerudung, a loose headscarf revealing some hair as often seen in Pakistan.  ‘This is not about the jilbab,’ she said.  ‘It’s about human rights, justice, democracy and social harmony.’

The 96-page HRW document reports Komnas Perempuan [National Commission on Violence Against Women] had identified “421 ordinances passed between 2009-2016 that discriminate against women and religious minorities.”

Indonesia recognises six religions and has a Ministry of Religious Affairs. A citizen’s faith gets stamped on their ID card. Despite regular attempts by zealots to impose sharia law, the country remains constitutionally secular.

Said Alissa Wahid: ’The regulation is very important, crucial, to maintain the idea of Indonesia as a cohesive nation-state. Everyone has the right to religious freedom.’

Indonesia has 34 provinces, with 24 predominantly Islam. After some parents protested local governments and schools were making the jilbab compulsory for non-Muslims, President Joko Widodo stirred himself. The President ordered all administrations and the nation’s 300,000 state schools to revoke mandatory jilbab regulations. Intransigents risk sanctions, including withholding education funds.

The cheering lessened once the exclusions were discovered. The decree doesn’t apply in the province of Aceh which makes its own religious laws, or the 30,000 pesantren [Muslim schools]. Fundamentalists used the Trump truth-twisting trick by claiming the Jakarta order is a sign of Islamophobia and means girls will be forced to abandon their headscarves.

Human Rights Watch Australia Director Elaine Pearson called on the Indonesian government to end all discriminatory laws.

She described Indonesia’s clothing regulations as “part of a broader attack by conservative religious forces on gender equality and the ability of women and girls to exercise their rights to an education, a livelihood, and social benefits.”

First, they must convince themselves that heading outside sans scarf won’t lead to the pit of perdition. That journey’s maybe a mite easier with stories of tough trekkers like Ifa Hanifah Misbach helping guide the fearful.

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